Line Blurs Between Meat and Man

Rachel Payne’s letter about the foolishness of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA] misses the point. As a youth, she is entitled to missing points, but it is also important for a young person to appreciate the complexity of issues. Ethics by slogan with bumper stickers such as “Meat is Murder” are just as little likely to help the understanding as calling those who would disagree with us “foolish.” The former is simplistic thinking; the latter is an attack on people without really considering the issues.

To begin with, we should reflect about why we think that humans deserve special ethical consideration. Many of us  would be inclined to say that humans have a high intelligence quotient, setting them apart from the animals. However, we know that some animals are self-aware; that is, when one holds a mirror to the slightly smudged face of some animals, they will attempt to remove the smudge from their faces, not from the mirror image. In other words, they are aware that the mirror depicts them—a sense of self that many, perhaps even most, but definitely not all—try this with a fetus, for example––humans have also. As ample experiments have shown, animals also are capable of language. Some dogs will retrieve objects by the name of those objects; chimpanzees have been taught sign language; Koko, the gorilla, has her own web-site and has a measured IQ of about 90; and almost any pet owner will argue that his or her pet does come up with some limited understanding and communication. Even in the wild, many animals use tools and seem to be able to solve fairly complex problems.

If we argue that some pets can do such marvelous things but that these marvelous things are not part of what ALL animals can do, then we must allow for such a distinction for humans also. Not all humans are highly intelligent. So, are humans of lesser intelligence not extended the same moral rights as other humans? I think that only the most cynical of exploiters would argue in favor of such a notion. In other words, if we draw the line of entitlement to moral protection by intelligence, we must include some animals and exclude some humans.

Of course, we could also simply include humans because they have human biological features. But if we were to have lived a few millennia ago, we might have shared the planet with Neanderthal humans. Would that branch of humanity have been food? Or would it have been brothers and sisters? Or let’s go closer to modern times. When the Portuguese first went to Africa , they tried to shake hands with gorillas, whom they thought of as closely related cousins. Not very much later, Europeans engaged in slave trade, assuming that Black Africans were chattel and could be sold and traded and abused with impunity. And need I mention the racism that displaced the original inhabitants of this continent. Was that not also a confusion of where the lines of moral protection should be drawn, where the human realm stopped and the “animal” realm began?

Clearly then, ethical thinking can get very confused about the status of a being as either non-entitled animal and entitled human. Suppose that we are landing somewhere beyond Alpha Centauri with our trusted spaceship because, say, we had a flat on the crystals or some other kind of technical mishap. We must procure food. Which species on this lively planet would be food? And which species would be the one we’d try to shake hands with? Up front and without millennia of prejudice, we’d have no idea. Suppose some centipede comes crawling toward us, raises its front slightly, and says—we have our trusted universal translator on full blast, of course!—“Hey guys! Need a few hands here?” OK, it does not look human; it does not speak human; but it does offer to help—a very moral relationship in the making here. How do we deal with it? If we allow special moral regard only for entities that are biologically human, the centipede loses. But that kind of thinking would be very much opposed to the healthy moral intuition that many of us are likely to have in such a case.

So back to the increasingly foolish people of PETA. The fact is that we don’t know fully what kind of thinking inhabits the brains of animals. We do know, however, that time and again, we hear stories of selfless dedication of animals to humans: dolphins coming to the rescue of drowning sailors, and—according to NewsJournal reports—a dog that has protected an elderly person from a six-foot alligator or a dog that took an abandoned baby to its own litter for protection. The point is that animals are much more like us than we are willing to admit. If chimpanzees with the intelligence of a five-year-old may be experimented on medically, it’s not all that far to go before we decide that experimenting with letting poor Blacks die of syphilis as in the federally funded experiment at Tuskegee from 1932 to 1972 might be perfectly OK even after the definitive evidence for the use of penicillin for syphilis in 1947 had been established.

I would really rather draw the lines of protection a bit wider. Perhaps it’s better to include some animals for special protection than to become calloused enough to exclude some demonstrably intelligent beings. And as long as we don’t fully understand the self-concept and the level of intelligence of animals, we might wish to err on the side of caution here. But regardless of animals’ level of intelligence, we certainly have no doubt that animals can sense pain. What happens in the medical labs is not excusable. What happens in the puppy mills is not excusable. What happens in the slaughterhouses is not excusable. The foolish may be those of us who are ignoring the pain and suffering that was very much part of the disembodied steak on our plate.

Pythagoras already cautioned against meat eating on the grounds that the soul migrates. What is today on your plate might have had your grandfather’s soul before you tortured it to death. What will be on someone’s plate tomorrow might be your soul come back for the torture. Perhaps we should think of this world as an intertwined totality that we are all a part of. When we merge with the total soul of world and nature, will we find that it contains all the suffering we have imposed on other humans and on other animals? Will all the pain that we dole out be the pain that is part of the stock of experiences that we will merge with as we find the atman of the world, the soul of the world?

Now there’s a scary thought, isn’t it? Scary enough to make you want to join PETA when those folks storm the next medical lab engaged in animal abuse? By the way, thank you and kudos to The Body Shop, a business that has made a corporate commitment not to use any animal experimentation while bringing the next cosmetics to market. Would that all of us would become that knowledgeable and sensitive. After all, if animals are sufficiently like humans to allow meaningful conclusions about human health, then perhaps they are also sufficiently like humans to have a right to moral protection. And if animals are sufficiently unlike humans as not to be entitled to moral protection, then perhaps they are also sufficiently unlike humans so as not to allow meaningful conclusions about human health. Something to contemplate, isn’t it?